Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent Day 16, 2016 - ...But many stood firm...

After Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came from the land of Kittim, had defeated King Darius of the Persians and the Medes, he succeeded him as king. (He had previously become king of Greece.) He fought many battles, conquered strongholds, and put to death the kings of the earth. He advanced to the ends of the earth, and plundered many nations. When the earth became quiet before him, he was exalted, and his heart was lifted up. He gathered a very strong army and ruled over countries, nations, and princes, and they became tributary to him.
 After this he fell sick and perceived that he was dying. So he summoned his most honoured officers, who had been brought up with him from youth, and divided his kingdom among them while he was still alive. And after Alexander had reigned for twelve years, he died.
 Then his officers began to rule, each in his own place. They all put on crowns after his death, and so did their descendants after them for many years; and they caused many evils on the earth.
 From them came forth a sinful root, Antiochus Epiphanes, son of King Antiochus; he had been a hostage in Rome. He began to reign in the one hundred and thirty-seventh year of the kingdom of the Greeks.
 In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.’ This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.
 Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt-offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah, and offered incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king.
 But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. Very great wrath came upon Israel. - 1 Maccabees 1:1-15, 54-57, 62-64.*

Every year, while we celebrate the season of advent, our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate the eight days of Hanukkah. Hanukkah never falls on exactly the same days each year. It can begin as early as December 1 and end as late as January 1. Occasionally it will fall during our Christmas season, but usually is somewhere in Advent. We don't hear about it as much as we do Christmas, but it is part of our history. It's good to read and think about the Maccabees, the heroes of this era, and how Hanukkah came to be.

A king named Antiochus III was a Hellenistic king determined to make Jerusalem another Greek city on his march to try to take over Egypt and make his empire the greatest in the world. His\son, called Antiochus IV, was even worse than his father. He adopted the name "Epiphanes" meaning "God in our midst," but that blasphemy angered the Jews who called him "Epimames" meaning "the Madman." He wanted too suppress all Jewish religion and culture and began with removing the High Priest and replacing him with a Hellenized Jew. Ultimately, the Temple was desecrated and the altar used to sacrifice swine to the god Zeus. Jewish torahs and books were burned, circumcisions were forbidden, and worship was eliminated unless it was to the Greek gods.

Among the most righteous who resisted was a man named Mattathias whose family were called Maccabees. They became heroes, standing up to Antiochus Epiphanes  and ultimately gained enough followers to defeat the Greek army, cleanse the temple, and rededicate it. The festival of Hanukkah celebrates the liberation of the Temple, it's rededication, and the fact that despite there being almost no consecrated oil for lamps, a small barrel of good oil was found. It was a miracle; the small bit of oil kept the lamps burning in the Temple for eight days.

The reading doesn't go that far into the history but does spell out some of the difficulties under which the Jews had to contend. Imagine having your sacred books destroyed, your cultural and religious identity wiped out, and you could be  put to death simply for owning a holy book like the Bible. For those who tried to maintain their Jewishness it was an almost impossible situation. Yet they chose to be and to stay as the people of God, and they did the best they could.

There was a song some years ago by a very talented musician named Peter Yarrow, called "Light One Candle."  He recorded it with his friends Paul Stookey and MaryTravers, and while it wasn't specifically a song about  Hanukkah, it brought the struggle of the Jews under Antiochus into a modern context. It was a reminder that light is worth the struggle and that good can light a candle in the darkness and keep it burning as a beacon.

An awful lot of Christmas hymns and Christmas songs  celebrate the season for telling the story of Christmas. Some of them go into what Christmas is supposed to be like for us, but unfortunately, a lot of the ones we hear don't talk about about babies, mangers, angels singing  joyfully, or something that might be remotely considered religious. Instead we worship "White Christmas," "Jingle Bells," and "Deck the Halls." We sing songs about lifestyles that may or may not have any bearing at all on the reason we celebrate the season. I won't even mention "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

It's important for us as Christians to remember why we celebrate, just as it is for our Jewish brothers and sisters to remember the reasons for Hanukkah and especially Passover. It's been said so often and so well that "If we fail to remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it." Advent is here to remind us what it is that we're celebrating and that everything else is secondary. Hanukkah reminds us that even lighting one little candle in stir up our memories and show our faith in a very tangible way. Advent also features lighting candles and letting their light shine forth.

The reading from 1 Maccabees tells us that many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food or to profane the holy covenant. It is that kind of witness, that strength of faith, that we should be cultivating ourselves during Advent. Advent prepares us for a better way of living, just take the time to try.

Light one candle and stand firm.

*Not on the Daily Office or Eucharistic Readings for today, but something I wanted to write about anyway.

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